We’ve all got work stress, of course. For many of us, some of that work stress spills over into our home lives causing additional stress there (beyond the stress that we experience in our lives with our families and friends).
Then there’s the stress that comes from trying to balance work, family, and friends when they intersect. This often causes a lot of us to try to multi-task to just deal with it all, which research has shown doesn’t actually work, is bad for your brain and simultaneously adds to our stress levels.
Thankfully there’s a lot of great advice about how to de-stress ourselves, including “unplugging” and taking breaks throughout the day. Then there’s my personal favorite: literally breaking some stuff – legally, of course, via legitimate businesses that have been set up with the specific purpose of letting you smash things in a demolition room to reduce stress.
Many of these solutions are intended to help us reduce stress when we actually experience it. In other words, “I’m stressed out. How can I get myself back to normal?”
The more intriguing question is whether we actually have a choice to get stressed out in the first place. In other words, is stress a personal choice we can control? Can we preemptively head stress off at the pass before it happens so that we don’t feel compelled to rent out time in a demolition room and smash up a copier machine? And if this is possible, how do you do it?
The Brief Science Behind Stress
Many of you know the science behind stress and the chemical reaction that occurs in our brains that causes us to manifest the physical and emotional signs of stress. In laymen’s terms for those of us who aren’t neuroscientists (that was my back-up career choice if business consulting didn’t work out), here’s how it works:
You perceive a threat which triggers your amygdala (the primitive part of the brain that regulates emotions). The amygdala signals the hypothalamus, which releases adrenaline followed by a stress hormone called cortisol, which enters your bloodstream and circulates around your body. This then boosts your blood sugar and increases your oxygen flow to your heart and muscles.
You are now in fight or flight mode. Many of you also know that prolonged fight or flight is destructive to your body.
Can You Get In Front Of It?
The physiological symptoms of stress are based on an autonomic response. Most of you know that you can’t control that. But many researchers are studying why some people deal with stress better than others. In some cases, they are studying the physiological and chemical drivers. Some have found that a certain protein called beta-catenin seems to show up in higher levels in the brain for those who are better at dealing with stress.
For those of us who aren’t naturally endowed in the beta-catenin arena, we have to find other ways to get in front of stress. For us, it comes down to the psychology of stress and how we can regulate our emotions in a way that reduces the need for that autonomic response to kick into gear in the first place.
Is Stress Our Own Doing?
Dr. Susan Biali, a medical doctor and wellness expert, writes about how we are sometimes our own worst enemies around stress and how there’s a social validation element to it. She recently wrote about how many of us use getting psychologically and visibly stressed out as a way of showing that what we are doing is important. She describes how on some levels, showing stress makes us feel important. Or it tells the world how important our responsibilities are. She describes it almost like a dysfunctional badge of honor.
Whereas many of us probably wouldn’t admit that we do that if we were questioned, I found that if I really reflected honestly about it, I personally do that more than I should. You might, too. This is essentially “manufactured stress.” Sometimes, we cause our own stress by how we manage our daily lives, in particular by creating artificial urgency, which also plays into Dr. Biali’s social validation element. In other words, I’m telling the world that my stuff is really important because I’ve categorized it as urgent.
In my own work life balance assessment index, I’ve identified several things in addition to “artificial urgency” that many of us do that ultimately cause us to feel imbalanced about work and life and actually generates our own stress.
To that end, Dr. Biali asks us all an important if not simple question when it comes to stress:
“What if it is as simple as slowing down and calmly doing whatever it is you need to do?”
No dysfunctional badges of honor. Nothing to validate with anyone else. It’s certainly worth a try. In this case, maybe stress is more of a choice than we think.